Commissioners talking fire service this week

On Thursday, May 7, Escambia County Commissioners will be asked to sign off on the addition of 12 new positions to staff the Ferry Pass fire station, including nine firefighters and three lieutenant positions.

The additional personnel will cost an additional $375,000.

Escambia County Administrator Jack Brown added the career firefighters to the volunteer-staffed station following a Good Friday incident in which two fires just hours apart tapped out the Ferry Pass station’s staffing capacity.

Data from Escambia County Fire Rescue’s manpower survey showed that Ferry Pass was the busiest volunteer station in the county, receiving calls about some 2,098 incidents in 2014.

In 32 percent of those, there was no response from the Ferry Pass station. That does not mean no one at all responded. It means that those who did respond came from another station, even though the Ferry Pass station was closest.

The issue stirred concerns from both career and volunteer firefighter camps.

Brown says he will have Public Safety Director Mike Weaver and Fire Service staff collaborate to create a firm set of figures about staffing, response rates and the number of missed calls.

It may seem like an easy question, but the answer initially proved more complex than it seems as first blush.

“For example, on calls that are logged as ‘nonresponse,’” Brown says. “Was it a nonresponse because they were already gone? Was it nonresponse because they didn’t respond to a fire that wasn’t within their district but was in another district?

“We’re going to run those numbers down and try to find the middle ground.”

Changes to state guidelines about qualifications to be a volunteer have had an impact on the number of people who make the cut.

It used to be you needed 40 hours to be a volunteer, Brown says. Now you need 206 hours to be a volunteer, according to state guidelines.

Brown wants to look at whether the intake and hiring process can be streamlined for those who want to serve, “but the volunteers have got to realize they can’t do it all.

“When I put the firefighters in at Ferry Pass it wasn’t anything against (the volunteers), but I’ve got to have a fire truck roll,” Brown says. “The day after that happened, we had a person injured who could have perished, or the next house over could have caught fire.”

Brown also says he wants the county to move to accepting training hours earned online, a standard, he says, that was already accepted by the state fire college.

“If its good enough for the state fire college, it’s good enough for us,” Brown says. “The professionals take it very serious being professionals. And they all came up through the volunteer ranks. And the volunteers take it very seriously, being a volunteer.”

The bottom line remains providing what citizens expect when they call for help.

“We have a responsibility to provide public safety but we also have to determine the right level of service and impact upon the residents pocketbook,” Brown says.